Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Navigating through the chaos of social media and the internet at large can be onerous at the best of times. During the pandemic, it has become even harder for ordinary people to tell whether or not what they hear, watch, or read is true. More than 80 years ago the US-based Institute of Propaganda Analysis identified seven techniques most often used to sway audiences in propaganda material – such as “bandwagoning”, “generalities” and appealing to “plain folks” – that are still deployed today alongside an arsenal of other, sinister new tactics to sway public opinion.
Despite the now-overwhelming amount of both factual information and disinformation online, though, two experts tell IranWire it is still possible to secure oneself against being easily manipulated. Mark Galeotti, an Honorary Professor at University College London and expert on contemporary security issues in Russia, says it begins with acknowledging that you could be affected.
"A lot of disinformation is not outright lying, but truth with spin, perhaps taken out of context,” he says. “You always need to be paranoid about what you see and read. If something is changing your perspective, you need to verify it."
First and foremost, Galeotti says, the curious reader should examine the source. As far as possible it is better to stick with media outlets with a reputation for fairness and balance. This does not, for instance, include state-owned outlets such as Russia’s RT or Sputnik, because what makes the news on such outlets is determined by the interests of a government.
Pavel Havlicek, a research fellow at the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, notes that it can be particularly difficult to determine the source of content posted on social media. People therefore need to be very careful when sharing information that they have not read in full, he says. Havlicek suggests subscribing to NewsGuard, a tool that can be embedded into your browser and rates websites that present as news providers on their credibility.
To gauge whether an item of information is reliable, Havlicek says, read around the topic. IranWire has previously described how Russian President Vladimir Putin published a lengthy analysis of the Second World War in English in American conservative magazine The National Interest that was roundly attacked by historians for being misleading. This is a good example, Havlicek says, of how a given point or conclusion can be contested with prior knowledge or by finding other sources.
In addition, in this case, seeing Vladimir Putin is the author ought to ring alarm bells. As a statesman and president of Russia, Putin has clear motives for writing such a piece. Missives about current affairs from Donald Trump on Twitter should be read with a similarly critical eye.
Readers, Havlicek says, also need to be alert to the possibility of misleading headlines. Headlines might well say one thing, but the content of the article they sit above may be wildly different. For instance, he says, Russian news articles aimed at audiences in the Czech Republic generally praise the European Union to attract an audience. But the subsequent text may push a different story entirely: for instance, alleging problems with the LGBT community within the EU or highlighting divisions in the bloc.
That is not to say that these things should not be read. Galeotti points out that observing Russian TV broadcasts, for instance, can be a good way to understand what kinds of narratives are being shared with its audiences, in turn shaping their view of the world.
What Can we Learn from the Institute of Propaganda Analysis?
According to this wartime body, which operated from 1937 to 1942, people need to keep a close eye on techniques such as “name-calling” in ostensible news articles. If certain slurs are used repeatedly, for instance if Westerners are called “spies” or Muslims “extremists” without adequate grounds on each occasion, this is likely to be part of a sustained attempt to manipulate the audience.
Bandwagoning, the Institute stated, is another common tactic. This involves persuading a reader that “everyone” feels a particular way and that therefore, they should do. Wanting to belong is a powerful feeling and as IranWire previously reported, Russia has attempted to harness this in recent months by bombarding people in different places with the same questionable narratives.
Be always on the alert, the Institute adds, for generalizations. Does a statement stand up to the questions: How? With what? By what means? If not, it’s not strong enough by itself to rely on.
Also in this series: